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Cain column: 2023 Rugby World Cup draw can’t be held amid the chaos

Bill Beaumont

Last week was the week in which the lockdown looked as if it was destined to send the world of Rugby Union into meltdown. There are a few edicts that reflect this more than the bone-headed decision by World Rugby to announce the draw for the pool stage of the 2023 World Cup three years before the tournament on the weekend of November 21-22, 2020.

This was meant to take place after the Autumn internationals, but at present no-one has any idea what form those will take – despite the recent missive from Twickenham that it hopes to run an international event in that window featuring the Six Nations, plus South Africa and Japan.

This decision means that unless it is amended rapidly, there will have been virtually no international rugby on which to base the world rankings – which are the basis of the World Cup pool draw.

The draw for the 2019 tournament in Japan took place 18 months after the 2015 World Cup final, and was widely criticised for being unnecessarily early.

It was pointed out at the time that, by comparison, football World Cup draws are usually made only six months before a tournament starts, because there is a recognition that a huge amount can change in team performance in a three-year period.

The same applies in Rugby Union, and by bringing the draw for the 2023 World Cup forward by another six months, the world governing body were slammed pre-coronavirus for denying international sides the opportunity to improve their standings before the tournament.

Following the coronavirus lockdown it means that unless the dates are moved there will be no leeway at all for the teams to improve. The message that World Rugby should be receiving loud and clear is to move this premature draw date, or risk a tournament which could be devalued by pool rankings that are hopelessly out of date.

Another huge concern is that not only is the 2019-20 season in danger of being wiped out, but also that the knock-on from plans to finish the nine rounds of the Premiership remaining before the start of the 2020-21 season, could end up knackering two seasons instead of one.

 A tally of Premiership and European club games from the planned restart of the 2019-20 season on August 14 until July 3, 2021 – when the Lions tour is scheduled – shows that they will fill all 47 weekends over that period.

The elephant in the room is that this schedule makes no allowances for a single international match. That means no Autumn internationals of any description, no Six Nations, and no Lions v Japan Test (on June 26). It also means that if the international calendar was to overlap with it, we would be back to square one with club competitions devalued again by having their Test players unavailable. 

Where will this leave the much-trumpeted concerns about player welfare and safety amid the sort of fixture chaos that this scenario presents?

In the meantime, the players are having to fight on a different front as English club rugby is being dragged through the mud following a wage war between Darren Childs’ Premiership clubs and their players, who are represented by Damian Hopley’s RPA.

The Premiership owners have shown themselves in their worst light yet – which takes some doing – by attempting to dictate terms to players, rather than reaching agreement through mediation.

Having agreed among themselves to reduce the salary cap from £6.4m to £5m, the clubs are now trying to enforce the temporary 25 per cent pay cut that was introduced in March, so that it applies from 2021 until 2024.

Bill Beaumont and the 2023 Rugby World Cup draw

There are two sides to this story. The first is that the players have been extremely fortunate that Premiership clubs have allowed a level of wage inflation which is totally disproportionate to the finances of the sport. As a result, as made clear elsewhere in this edition, many players had been coining it in – especially the 24 who have been paid £14m in the last year.

 However, in defence of the players, the owners have no-one but themselves to blame for this financial mismanagement. They are culpable for letting wage costs spiral out of control, and now, rather than spend the CVC windfall to prop up their clubs, they want the players to foot the bill by slashing their salaries.

The RFU have also made a financial rod for their own back, having authorised a massive increase in funding for the Premiership clubs under the PGA negotiated by former chief executives Ian Ritchie and Steve Brown.

 Now, as Lord Myners pointed out, the RFU have received a brutal reminder that predicating your entire financial plan on five or six internationals at Twickenham is not the wisest policy.

The same could be said for the RFU and the other northern hemisphere unions agreeing in haste to a global season in which the professional game in Europe is played from November to July, while the community game stays in the traditional September to April window.

What impact this will have on supporters if Lions tours are played in October – as Warren Gatland suggested on Friday that the 2121 tour might be – and the Six Nations is moved to March/April, should have been looked at carefully well before now.

It is also asking for trouble if the Twickenham administration saddles the RFU with £100m in debt – which could rise to as much as £150m – while slashing the funding to the community game that it is the national union’s duty to protect and nurture.

Rugby Union in England, and around the world, is desperate for strong, unifying leaders with clarity of vision and great organisational ability. At the moment they are nowhere in sight as we stagger through the quagmire.

NICK CAIN

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